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One Mistake And You're Dead
Joshua Cooper Ramo
April 21, 2003
It's called aerobatics—planes soaring, diving and spinning as their pilots fight G-forces, disorientation and blackout—and it's the world's most dangerous sport
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April 21, 2003

One Mistake And You're Dead

It's called aerobatics—planes soaring, diving and spinning as their pilots fight G-forces, disorientation and blackout—and it's the world's most dangerous sport

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This is how Leo died: For years people had said he would die in a plane. A number of times it looked like a sure bet, times when people watching Leo from the ground would turn their heads away. But Leo always landed unhurt. Leo got killed on his motorcycle. This was incredible to pilots who knew him. After all this, he gets hit by a car? "Cleaned off a motorcycle," in the awful phrase of a friend of his.

As long as people fly aerobatics they will talk about Leo, a prophet of what was possible in the air. "I build a cage around myself, pull into a shell so I can reason things out," he once said, struggling to explain the intensity that locked him away from the world. Sometimes, at a contest, a friend would offer him a bed for the night, some company in a strange town. He would refuse. Leo Loudenslager would take out a tarp and put it on the cold ground under his wing and go to sleep alone, in air that smelled of oil.

To tumble a plane, to let it snap out of control in the sky, you need to believe in something. You are making the plane stop flying altogether. You are far outside physics. The best pilots in the world cannot regularly predict where their tumbles will end. Tumbling is at once the most violent thing you can do in an airplane and the most wonderful.

Getting the plane to tumble is difficult. The challenge sat in front of me like a complex math problem. The idea was to stop the lift on every surface of the airplane all at once, then to use the propeller to flip the airplane around in the sky. The best planes for tumbling are like a quarter, whose center of gravity and center of mass are one and the same. In such planes it is possible to tumble with the speed and beauty of a flipped coin. The whole time you have to keep the plane from flying again. As it flips in the sky the plane will ceaselessly try to reattach the airflow to its wings. You must make immediate adjustments. It is best to start your tumble on a line going up, when the plane has the most upward momentum. This is a way to keep the nose from dropping too quickly, to keep the wings from flying again.

"When you are tumbling you feel nothing," Boriak warns me. The plane is at zero G almost the whole time. When you are pulling high G's or pushing negative G's, you are being jerked in or out of your seat. At zero G you feel nothing while the world tumbles around you violently. If you are flying well, the plane starts to accelerate. You tumble ever faster. It frightens you even more. Tumbles are not allowed in regular aerobatic competition. They are too hard to score, impossible even for the best pilots to manage consistently.

Then you must recover. You never know how the tumble is going to end. So you also need to have the skill and confidence to recover from anything. Will you be in a spin? Will you be diving straight down? Tumbling is the ultimate test of flying, and it is not flying at all. To master the ability to not fly at all, you must be able to fly wonderfully. Only when you have total faith in your connection with the air can you release it.

I start with upside-down spins and repeat them until I am comfortable. Then flat spins, snap rolls. I develop a whole vocabulary of violent flight. One day I am ready to try a tumble, to graduate to the world of uncontrollability. I am ready to find, I hope, what I have been looking for in the air all along.

It is the kind of evening to write poems about. Just twilight, soft and pink on the green Florida land below me. I take the plane up in the cool air. Eight thousand feet. It is very high. I circle for a while, my mind patiently ironing out the fear. I take a breath. I know what the tumble should look like. I know how it should feel, how the violence should come like a punch and go away like a giggle. It should be wonderful and terrible at the same moment.

I come back hard and fast on the stick. The plane whips up, and I push it to the side, before it can spill off energy. The sky is pink. The sun is racing down. Then forward, everything forward, stick and rudders all at once, and the plane is gone into a beautiful and terrifying chaos. I don't even try to control it. I just let it happen.

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